How I Buy – Kristen Alexander, CMO, Certain

 In #HowIBuy

kristen alexanderA common thread among the execs interviewed for the #HowIBuy series is the idea that new information often comes from peers and one’s own network.  While we all agree with that general trend, the exact details of how that information comes up is often left as a bit of a mystery.  Understanding this flow of information is core to relationship intelligence, and that makes this week’s interview immensely valuable.

In today’s interview, Kristen Alexander, CMO at Certain, helps clarify.  She learns a lot from peers, luminaries, and up-and-comers within her team.  More importantly, she has a process for ensuring that she continues to learn from these sources, and is able to gather the best insights from each source in every interaction.  Here are Kristen’s insights:

Can you tell us a bit about Certain to set the context?

Absolutely.  Certain provides event automation software for data driven marketers.  We help marketers recognize the value of capturing data before, during, and after the events that they run.  By doing this, we are able to help marketers make better use of event data and create better marketing strategies.

What’s your role within Certain?

I’m the CMO and I have responsibility for all of marketing as well as sales development.  I view sales development as a bridge between the worlds of marketing and sales and it provides me with a lot of checks and balances to ensure that we are generating the right demand for our sales team.

I have responsibility for our partnerships from technology partnerships like Eloqua and Marketo to industry partnerships like with Demandbase and the ABM Leadership Alliance.  I also have a significant role in shaping product development as I am the target customer so I am able to influence the  product decisions we make.

Throughout a year, what do you generally spend money on?

I consider myself a pipeline marketer, so I invest in things that will create demand and accelerate it through the pipe towards close.  That can be either technology or programs; whatever we most need to drive revenue.

We don’t have a huge marketing tech stack compared to some in the industry.  We are thoughtful in prioritizing our spend on the acute pain at a given moment.  This forces us to be quite ruthless in drawing a line between need to have and nice to have.  I find that the nice to have category is often the solutions that are trendy at the moment, but if they don’t help me solve an acute pain, they won’t get prioritized for the moment.

We spend on marketing software (Eloqua), CRM software (Salesforce), ABM and predictive software (Demandbase), along with spend on contact and lead management and SEO and SEM.  Together, this stack allows us to guide a buyer from the moment that we see intent around event automation, through to purchase.

How do you discover what’s out there and what solutions might possibly be of interest for Certain?

I’m an avid user of technology and I want to be ahead.  I work to keep on top of the latest options for marketing, and I categorize them in my head in order to have them available as needed when challenges arise.

I get a lot through social media, I follow a large number of experts, CMOs, and other marketing leaders.  Through them I am exposed to a lot of their learnings.  On the other side of the coin, I keep close with a number of up and coming marketers who are very dialed in to what is on the horizon.  

When I’m meeting a peer, I’ll often start the conversation by sharing my technology stack, what we’re using, what works, and how well.  I’ll listen very closely as they are sharing their stack as there’s often a lot to learn in terms of how they had a particular challenge and tried (successfully or unsuccessfully) to solve it with a particular solution.

I might at times reach out to a vendor that has come up in one of those conversations for a conversation.  We can cover a lot in a dedicated hour conversation, and I’m quite transparent with my priorities.  I will set out our top priorities that might be of relevance to that vendor, and I’m looking for an honest conversation around if, and how, they might approach those challenges.  The faster we can get to an honest conversation the better things will go.  At this point the relationship is being built, and trust is of the utmost importance.

When things progress to the evaluation phase, how do you approach it?

The number one thing for us is to be very clear in what we need.  This is a combination of introspection and communication.  We need to be true to ourselves on what we really need and why, and we need to communicate that to any vendor who is going to help us.  

We spend time internally clarifying what we need with a series of hard questions; what is our current state of affairs without the proposed tool?  If we lived without it for 6 months, what would happen?  Would it be worth sacrificing alternate priority X or Y for?  The more we can push on these difficult questions, the more we’re able to draw that line between nice to have and need to have.

From my perspective, I want to make sure that the proposed initiative fits our overall business goals and top-level initiatives, but I also want to balance the amount that the team can absorb in any period of time.  Adding any technology makes things more complicated.

What do the best sales professionals do?

I’m remarkably transparent with our priorities.  The best thing that a salesperson can do is to listen.  If I say that this is not a priority for the next quarter, don’t push for a meeting, that won’t help your cause.  Sometimes a very smart question can reframe things in a way I hadn’t thought of, and cause me to re-evaluate, but in general, pushiness when I’ve clearly set out my priorities is unlikely to change them.

If they are great at building a relationship, maybe I’ll accelerate things, or at least be much more open to listening to a different perspective on why acceleration is something I should consider.  However when I say that the right person is my demand gen leader, immediately going to my CEO is not going to build the relationship. The best sales people think about building a relationship for life.

If we are actively evaluating a solution, the best course of action is to listen, perhaps challenge, and definitely help educate.  I don’t think in terms of acquiring technology, I think about acquiring a team of people that will help me think more strategically about that area of my business.

Thanks for your insights on buying, Kristen, they were tremendously valuable!

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Experienced SaaS CTO. Founded and guided the building of Eloqua to a market leading position in Marketing Automation. Now Co-founder and CTO at Nudge. Author of the book “Digital Body Language" with a passion for innovation, cloud computing and software evolution.
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